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What planet are you on? Talking about the environment July 24, 2006

Posted by CamdenKiwi in : Environment,Reviews , trackback

If you believe that climate change is a frightening reality, that ecosystems have intrinsic value beyond that which they offer to humans, that we should consider the wider and long term environmental consequences of our actions, you’ve probably found yourself discussing these beliefs with someone who ‘just doesn’t get it’. It can feel like discussing the sunset with someone who is colourblind – what you mean by red and what they mean by red are completely different, and perhaps neither of you realise it.

When the conversation starts that way, there is almost no hope of it finishing with someone coming round to the other’s point of view, because there is no shared understanding to start with. Its even possible for both sides to come away having agreed to completely different things.

John S Dryzek’s ‘The Politics of the Earth’ is one of the most important books I’ve read about environmental politics and the condition of the planet in years. It doesn’t talk about the dying rainforests, the greenhouse effect or sea level rise, but it explains how we talk about these things, and why the communication between those who are working from different starting points is so often futile.

The core of the book is the explanation of 9 different ‘discourses’, frameworks or worldviews, in which conversations can be held. It shows what ‘basic entities’ are recognised, and points out that some frameworks, particularly those which are more market oriented, simply do not recognise the concept of an ecosystem at all. The basic assumptions about the relationships of people to the environment, and to each other are teased out – is nature there for humans to exploit, to protect or simply there for its own sake. Is cooperation a valid way of working or is competition the main driving force in human relationships? Who are the agents, or actors, in the world and what are their motives. Are we consumers, trying to accumulate as much as we can, or citizens, willing to work for the common good, or indeed both? What metaphors or rhetoric are used.

It might not be obvious that ‘Promethean’ which believes that the Earth and natural resources are there to be exploited and that it is a waste to not do so is an environmental discourse, but it is one of the more popular, particularly with some oil, gas and mining interests, many members of the Bush Administration, and the sort of farmer who regards setting aside land to return to the wilderness as almost sinful. By understanding it, it is possible to engage and, perhaps, convert.

The author explains some of the consequences of some of these discourses. For instance, deep ecology with its belief that we have a place in our ecosystem, but shouldn’t try to modify it much, returns to a hunting / gathering lifestyle and perhaps has as much in common with American ‘mountain men’ as it does with any other Green view.

It’s important to understand where these discourses fail to interact with other aspects of political life in the 21st century, which may lead to understanding of where the Green movement fails to get its message across, and where it succeeds. The discourses which are highly centralising and fail to recognise social / liberal democratic values, for instance, or the importance of the market in modern Western life, may find it difficult to make much headway if they have to revolutionise society before saving the planet.

Dryzek concludes that any successful discourse has to recognise modern liberal capitalism, not necessarily to accept it, but to find a way of dealing with it and to steer it to meet ecological needs, and has to have ‘the capacity to facilitate and engage in social learning in an ecological context’ meaning that it must be able to deal with the high degree of uncertainty and complexity inherent in environmental issues. Some of the more radical or dogmatic Green views, or those which propose a radical change to society without much idea of how to acheive that change, fail to meet these criteria.

By recognising these discourses, and understanding what we’re dealing with when trying to resolve a particular issue, there is much more chance that the Green movement will be successful.

A good example of this is economic growth, an anathema to Greens since the Report of the Club of Rome. A ‘survivalist’ who believes that the end is nigh, and that little can be done to save the world, let alone humanity, would see all growth as wrong. However, an ‘ecological modernist’ influenced more by ideas of sustainability, might see a form of ‘growth’ in increasing investment in creating zero-waste technologies. In our society, the former is likely to have far less appeal than the latter.

Dryzek suggests that the different discourses have strengths that can be exploited in different situations and for different reasons it is also perhaps true that people at different times may operate in different frameworks. For myself, most of the time, I’m probably what he refers to as an ‘ecological modernist’ seeking solutions within a liberal capitalist framework, with a bit of judicious regulation and needing to engage people as citizens as well as consumers. In my quieter, more contemplative moments, I can be almost gaian with quite green radical ideas.

By understanding where people are coming from, and the discourse within which they operate, it may be easier to resolve issues. For a fairly simple example, consider the use of bottled water, a pet hobby horse of mine. I can see geologists a few hundred thousand years hence, refering to this as the Plastic Bottle Era, because of the stratum of plastic bottles which started building up in the late 20th century.

A Survivalist would immediately see this a wrong, and probably make it illegal or at least tax the disposal of the bottle. It would be yet another symptom of impending doom.

For a Promethean, this is fine – someone’s found a niche, created a market and there are people around who are gullible enough to part with £1 or more for a litre of water. There is no point in talking about food miles or landfill here, as those ideas just mean that a trucking company and a waste disposal company are also doing well out of it. And for heavens sake, water’s good for you, isn’t it?

An Administrative Rationalist would assess the impact of the bottled water industry on the UK, or perhaps at a regional or local authority level. They would consider the benefits (drinking water improves health, it is convenient in hot weather, VAT collected, jobs if there is a local bottling plant) as well as the costs (waste, increased CO2 emissions from transportation). They would look at a variety of policy options including perhaps leaving it be, taxing sales and improving plastic bottle recycling. They would select and implement one or more of these options, with some limited public consultation on the way.

A Democratic Pragmatist would appeal to people citizens, rather than consumers. Public consultations would happen, and be listened to. Perhaps a lay committee of citizens would be formed to discuss the problems and come up with solutions. People would be expected to consider their own selfinterest as well as the greater good. The problem of waste disposal would be couched in human-related terms – less parkland for recreation, possibility of leakage into watersources used by humans.

Economic Rationalists would ask consumers why on earth they think its a good idea to buy water for £1 a litre, rather than get it out of a tap for a penny. They might create a market in ‘waste bottle credits’ which can be traded between those who waste a lot of bottles and those who don’t.

Sustainable Development would see that this doesn’t work long-term, but might be interested in locally produced bottled water (rather than that freighted in from Fiji) and look at reusing the bottles.

Ecological Modernisation would require a full cost benefit analysis, including all factors in the lifecycle of the product – manufacture, distribution and final disposal. They might also consider reusing bottles, or selling durable, refillable bottles and water separately. It is possible that the full cost-benefit analysis, with all the costs internalised into the price of the water, might just render it unprofitable.

The Green Consciousness discourse is not a single discourse, but a grab bag including Deep Ecologists, Ecofeminists, Bioregionalists and even Lifestyle Greens. It’s pretty unlikely that any of these would be interested in bottled water, although the lighter Lifestyle Greens might be misled by greenwash advertising especially if it involved a little fudding about the quality of tap water.

Green Politics people, who are out there on the street protesting against globalistation, for the rights of the worlds poor and perhaps are animal liberationists would certainly not entertain the idea of bottled water, even if they could afford it.

A campaign against bottled water needs to appeal to all the points of view which would contemplate buying it. Excluding the first and last two discourses, which can reasonably be assumed to be with me on this one, a campaign should:

The campaign needs to be integrated, and happen at the same time so that people and decision-makers are hit from different angles simultaneously. Note that none of these suggestions includes a basic appeal that we have no right to pollute the earth this way – those to who that idea would have meaning are almost certainly drinking tap water anyway, and there is no point wasting time preaching to the converted, however pleasant and affirming that may be.


1. -joe - July 24, 2006

Hi, I found your site via the WordPress Quick start book. Were you happy with WordPress stage blog before staging the blog on a server? I just want to be able to have a few of my friends start and I told them if they use blogger or blogstart I won’t be able to hep them. Thanks -joe